As former Murray State point guard Cameron Payne goes through his morning pre-draft workout at the IMG Academy in Florida, a number of insults are shouted at him.
“Nobody even knows who you are! You’re too small! You aren’t good enough to play in the NBA! No top programs recruited you out of high school! You can’t compete with the elite point guards!”
No, these aren’t haters or hecklers who are criticizing Payne. These are his IMG pre-draft coaches, yelling these things because the 2015 NBA Draft prospect loves to be taunted as he goes through his various drills and shooting exercises. The coaches also do this to see how he responds to the ribbing.
Rather than getting frustrated or distracted, the barrage of put-downs motivates him and he elevates his game. He clenches his teeth, and proceeds to hit shot after shot. With each make, he’s gaining confidence and yelling back.
“Keep talking!” Payne shouts. “I won’t miss if you keep talking. What else do you got?”
He loves following up each insult with a swish. After a little while, he steps far behind the NBA three-point line and continues to knock down jumpers with ease. Soon, he’s firing up shots with a lightning quick release and turning around to talk trash before the ball even goes in – Stephen Curry style.
As the verbal jabs keep coming and the shots keep falling, he’s no longer clenching his teeth or sporting a death stare. Now, he’s grinning and exuding swagger. He loves the reminders that he has been doubted his whole life, that nobody thought he’d be in this position. Yet here he is, several weeks away from turning his NBA dream into reality.
“It definitely fuels my fire,” Payne said with a smile when asked about this trash talking with his trainers. “I’m the underdog. I’ve been overlooked. When people say these things, it’s nothing new. I’ve heard it all before. I’m just here to do my Cam Payne thing.”
“I think it definitely motivates him and, look, he’s never been stopped,” said IMG Academy’s Head Skills Trainer Dan Barto. “His whole life he’s been told little things about his game, but he’s always found a way to succeed. Some of our coaches, who are former players themselves, have tried to get under his skin to see how high he can notch up [his game]. That’s something that a lot of the best players can do – the guys like Chauncey Billups, who I trained when I first started here, and Iman Shumpert, who I train every summer. Those guys have that same mode where as soon as you start talking trash, they’re like, ‘Okay, keep going. I’m going to show you. You’re going to end up looking bad.’ Cam is the same way.”
The insults directed at Payne seem laughable these days, since he was outstanding during his sophomore season at Murray State and he’s been equally impressive during the pre-draft process. Lately, he has been generating a lot of buzz and impressing NBA executives. He’s improving his stock and climbing draft boards rapidly, to the point that league sources believe he has a promise from a team picking in the lottery – perhaps even in the top 10. It seems inevitable that he’ll be selected very early on the night of June 25.
But it wasn’t long ago that some of those criticisms that were shouted were actually used to describe Payne and discredit his game, and that’s something he’ll never forget. He was a three-star recruit coming out of high school at Lausanne Collegiate School in Memphis, and he wasn’t even ranked nationally by some recruiting services. He was told that he didn’t have the size or talent to be a star in college, and bigger schools didn’t recruit him.
As a freshman at Murray State, he exceeded expectations and averaged 16.8 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.7 steals. Out of curiosity, he wondered if his first-year success had put him on any future NBA mock drafts. He was still projected to go undrafted on some mocks and ranked extremely low on others. While he wasn’t surprised by this, he did see something that infuriated him while looking at the projections: A number of players whom he had destroyed on the court were ranked significantly ahead of him. Even though he believed making it to the NBA was a long shot given the questions about his game and his lack of exposure at a mid-major school, he was determined to showcase his talent and prove he was better than those players.
He did just that in his sophomore season with the Racers. He averaged 20.2 points, 6.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.9 steals while limiting his turnovers to 2.5 per game and improving his shooting percentages to 45.6 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from three-point range. He was named the Ohio Valley Conference Player of the Year and, most importantly, led Murray State to 29 wins and a top-25 ranking at one point during the season. With the team winning and his numbers jumping off the page, it was impossible for Payne to be overlooked any longer.
“The second half of this last NCAA season at Murray State is when I realized [I might make it to the NBA],” Payne said. “We were getting noticed and that’s one of the main things about getting to that level: you’ve got to get noticed. We were winning games. If we didn’t win games, Cameron Payne would still be at Murray State. But we won games and everything worked out. Like our coach always said, the more team accolades we get, the more individual accolades you get, and that’s what happened. A lot of players on our team were getting that exposure just because what we did as a team. That was all that really mattered – what we did as a team – and that got me great exposure.”
He carried the Racers all season, leading them in points, assists, steals, field goals and three-pointers. He also received more exposure because he had a number of monster performances that turned heads throughout the course of his second season.
On December 13, Payne had 32 points (on 10-19 shooting, including 4-7 from three), eight assists, five rebounds and two steals in a win over Evansville. On January 22, he posted 33 points (on 12-20 shooting, including 3-5 from three), five rebounds and four assists in a win over Eastern Illinois. One week later, he filled the stat sheet in a win over Eastern Kentucky, contributing 21 points (on 8-16 shooting), 10 rebounds, five assists and six steals. On February 28, he had 31 points (on 12-24 shooting, including 4-9 from three), eight rebounds, six assists and two steals in a win over Tennessee Martin.
He says he never thought playing in the NBA was a realistic possibility for him until several months ago. It was always something he dreamed about, but he never got his hopes up. Now, there’s no doubt he’ll be in the league next season. The only question is, how high will he be selected on draft night?
Payne admits that this last month and a half has been very strange for him. Executives (including some basketball legends) are praising his game, NBA players are treating him like a peer and fans are analyzing every tweet or video he posts for clues as to where he may land. For example, several fans tweeted their excitement to see Payne wearing Indiana Pacers shorts in a Vine of one of his daily IMG workouts (even though it’s common for prospects to keep the shorts that teams give them and continue to wear them during training). After years of being underrated, Payne is finally getting the attention he deserves and he’s still adjusting to that.
“I approach everything the same way, but I can tell you right now, it’s a big time difference,” Payne said of this last month. “It’s a big time difference going from, ‘Yeah, maybe he could get on the team,’ to, ‘Ah man, we’ve got to get him!’ For me to be [projected to go] in the lottery, it’s just a blessing. I cannot thank anybody else but God. He put me in that position. I didn’t see it coming and now that I’m here and in this position, I just want to work and keep getting better.”
He’s certainly buying into the process at the IMG Academy, where nearly every waking hour is dedicated to making him a better player and preparing him for the NBA. He was one of the first prospects to start his pre-draft training, arriving on the IMG campus in March, and he has been working extremely hard and making considerable progress ever since.
Each morning, he starts his day doing various drills and conditioning exercises on IMG’s football field. Then, he’s in the weight room for an hour (which he says is the most important part of his training schedule since he wants to bulk up). He then heads to the gym, where he goes through his first basketball workout of the day, which consists of a lot of shooting and head-to-head drills against other draft prospects. After a three-hour break, he’s back in the gym for his second on-court workout of the day, which is usually a five-on-five pickup game that features the other draft prospects as well as current NBA players (such as Utah’s Rodney Hood and Orlando’s Maurice Harkless among others). After that, he winds down by watching the playoffs, looking at game film or playing NBA 2K.
Also, IMG’s staff has him on a customized nutrition plan, so all of his meals are designed to ensure that he’s consuming the right foods. There are also off-court activities designed to improve his hand-eye coordination and media skills among other things.
Payne is enjoying the pre-draft grind and realizes that the work he’s doing will not only help him improve right now, but also potentially extend his playing career since he’s taking excellent care of his body.
“I’m definitely focused on my strength and nutrition,” Payne said. “Those are the two main things. In college, you don’t eat like you should, so I’m definitely here to work on improving the things that I put in my body. Like people always say, you can’t put 87 in a Porsche – you’ve got to put the right fuel in there. That’s what I’m doing here, finding out the certain foods that will keep my body going so I’ll be able to play all the way into my 40s. And I’ve got to get stronger because that will help every aspect of my game; my defense, that’s the main thing I need to work on, and I believe it comes along with strength. My focus is definitely the weight room and my nutrition.”
Barto and the rest of the IMG staff have been extremely impressed with Payne and the work he has been doing on and off the court.
“The first thing that stands out is that he’s the ultimate competitor,” Barto said. “You don’t move up as quickly as he has – from a mid-major player to a dominant college star to an NBA draft prospect – and dominate as many point guard categories as he did analytically without having something special about you. I just don’t see the kid not succeeding, and I see him being part of a championship run after a couple years in the NBA.
“His body continues to improve and so does his understanding of the nutrition it’s going to take to be an 82-game guy – or hopefully even more games – as a rookie. I think also there’s the small things [he’s improving] like little things about his shooting mechanics, how he finishes around the basket and his ability to change speeds. Some people, I think, question his quickness or his first step, but when he really focuses on changing speeds, none of that matters. He moves like a lot of the elite point guards in the NBA, where they find ways to get to open space.”
One aspect of Payne’s game that has exceeded expectations at IMG is his playmaking ability. The coaches rave about his court vision and passing, which weren’t always on display in college since he was often asked to score the ball at Murray State. Sure, there were times where he got others involved and made good passes. But he has taken his facilitating to another level now. When he’s in pick-up games with other NBA-caliber players, he’s playing like a traditional point guard and racking up assists.
“I think his ability to pass the ball is underrated,” Barto said. “Here, he’s been able to play with a lot of NBA players and players who’ve had success in the D-League, so he doesn’t need to score every time like he did at Murray State. I’ve seen enough of him in high-level pick-up games in this type of environment to see that with the extra space, the side pick-and-rolls and the high ball screens, he gives the ball up before the weak-side shot blocker gets there or he gives the ball up early when teams try to trap him. And that’s in just three weeks of work. When I visualize where he could be after a full year or two years of work and with how highly competitive he is, his ceiling is really tough to determine. It’s just so high.”
Advanced analytics support that Payne can be an excellent facilitator. Last season, he had the highest assist percentage of all the prospects ranked in Draft Express’ top 100, and he averaged 7.3 assists per 40 minutes despite the fact that he wasn’t surrounded by top-tier teammates like some of the other draft prospects who went to larger schools. It’s becoming clear that Payne is a well-rounded point guard who can fit with just about any team since he can thrive in a number of different roles.
“[The team that drafts me] is going to get an all-around great point guard, a point guard who can do anything that the team needs,” Payne said. “I’ll do whatever the coach asks. In college, Coach [Steve] Prohm told me, ‘I need you to score a little more,’ and that’s what I did. When I get into the NBA, if I’m to sit in the corner and shoot threes, that is what I’m going to do. If I’m needed to be a lock down a defender, I’m going to work on my defense and do that. Anything the coaches need, that’s what Cameron Payne is going to do.”
If Payne’s journey sounds familiar, it’s because his ascent is very similar to that of fellow mid-major point guards Damian Lillard and Elfrid Payton. Like Payne, Lillard and Payton were being projected as second-round picks before thriving in their final collegiate season and in draft workouts, which allowed them to climb draft boards and eventually be selected No. 6 and No. 10, respectively. When asked who can be this year’s Lillard or Payton, Payne doesn’t hesitate.
“I believe it’s definitely me,” Payne said. “The reason [I wasn’t noticed] is because we are a mid-major program so we don’t get put on T.V. every day and people don’t talk about you every day. Now, we go into these meetings and all they want to know is, ‘Cameron Payne, who are you? Tell me something about you.’ Now, there’s so many good things that [are mentioned with] my name and people say, ‘I mean, how could you not like that guy?’ In this process, your personality comes out and shows because the people get to know you. That changes their whole perception about you and then when they get to know you, they start to watch more games. Then they say, ‘Okay, this guy can ball and he has a great personality. He’s this, he’s that.’
“That’s how I feel those players [like Lillard and Payton] move up. It’s also because they worked hard for everything they got. I haven’t been in that spotlight before and now that I am, I’m not going to take that spotlight for granted. I’m going to be the one who takes advantage of this, because that’s what I did going into college – I took advantage of my opportunity and did the best I could. Now I’m on this stage and I’m going to do the same.”
Payne has studied Lillard’s game and he may work out with Payton at some point in the next few weeks, since the Orlando Magic point guard is planning to spend some time training at IMG with his teammate Harkless.
Payne spends a significant amount of time watching NBA games and breaking down film, and Lillard is just one of many elite point guards he studies.
“I definitely study Chris Paul,” Payne said. “He has some high-flyers on his team and he knows how to keep them involved. I’ve talked to a lot of NBA general managers and they say they really count on paint touches, and Chris Paul gets into the paint almost every possession. I definitely watch him a lot and I try to see how he comes off ball screens and things like that, because he’s one of the best point guards in the league right now along with Steph Curry and Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard – I’m not trying to leave anybody out. But Chris Paul has been there and done it [for years]. He’s played at a high level and [makes his teammates perform] at a high level. He gets everybody involved and he makes his team better. Like when he was with the New Orleans Hornets, he took them to the playoffs in the Western Conference. He definitely does his job and I feel like that’s the type of player I am.”
Soon, Payne hopes to hear his name mentioned in the same sentence as those superstar point guards. He’s an extremely confident player and he has very high expectations for himself, so one of his goals is to be an elite floor general in the league.
“I just want to be one of the best point guards in the NBA; that’s my goal,” Payne said. “Down the road, if God blesses me to, I definitely want to be an All-Star. All of that’s going to come with hard work and lot of humbleness, and I’m down for it. I’ve been doing it my whole life, so I’m just going to keep grinding.”
Doubt him at your own risk.
Buy Or Sell: Central Division
Drew Mays continues Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series by taking a look at the Central Division.
It’s Dec. 12, and we’re over a quarter of the way through the 2019-20 NBA season. More importantly, we’re three days away from the 15th – the day much of the league because trade-eligible.
By now, teams have a good idea of who they are and where they want to be in four months when the playoffs roll around. This means they also know something else: Whether what they have in the locker room is enough, if they’re missing a piece, or if their season is toast and they should wheel and deal before the February trade deadline.
These thoughts inspired the Basketball Insiders’ “Buy Or Sell” series. Matt John led us off a few days ago by breaking down the Northwest Division. Yesterday, Jordan Hicks batted second with the Southwest Division. Today we’ll be checking on the division with the hottest team in the NBA: The Central.
Milwaukee Bucks (22-3) – Buyers (?)
Can anyone stop Milwaukee? They’ve won 16 straight, 20 of 21, and haven’t lost since Nov. 8. While part of this stretch has involved beating up lesser teams — and winning games you’re supposed to isn’t a bad thing — undoubtedly the most impressive performance came last Friday at home against the Los Angeles Clippers. They won 119-91 and it was even uglier than that. Los Angeles was down nine at halftime and 25 after three quarters. The Bucks held the Clippers’ three offensive stars – Paul George, Kawhi Leonard and Lou Williams – to 15-for-39 shooting and forced them into 15 turnovers (LA shot 35 percent and committed 21 turnovers as a team).
What Milwaukee did to the Clippers isn’t an outlier, either. They’ve blitzed the entire league on both ends of the floor. They’re first in defensive rating, third in offensive rating and first in average margin of victory at 13.4 points. They aren’t just winning – they’re winning big. They have the best effective field goal percentage in the NBA and the second-best allowed on defense.
The Bucks are deep and have 12 guys that get significant minutes. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only player above 30 minutes per game, with the rest of the roster falling in succession down to Robin Lopez’s 14.5 per. They’re shooting extremely well while still making the third-most threes per game in the league at 14.4. Nine different players make at least one every game.
Even scarier, Giannis keeps evolving. His three-point shooting volume has been a revelation – he’s taking five each night. He’s never taken more than three. And even shooting only 31.9 percent, the attempts in themselves (and Giannis’ willingness to shoot them) has opened up the offense more than ever before. It’s led to Antetokounmpo somehow topping his numbers from last season – he’s up from 27.7/12.5/5.9 to 30.9/13.2/5.5. Sheesh.
There’s a huge scoring drop off after Giannis, though. Only Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez join him in double figures. They could use another scorer or playmaker. People have long half-jokingly floated the idea of Chris Paul, but that seems unlikely. There may not be a player on the market worth chasing based on their needs.
Still, the lack of extra scoring punch behind the MVP might not even be an issue until the postseason. Until then, Milwaukee fans can enjoy the ride – the Bucks shouldn’t have worries for a while.
Indiana Pacers (16-9) – Buyers
After a slow start, Indiana has rejoined the upper cluster of the Eastern Conference. They’ve won nine of their last 12 and sit in the top half of the league in both offensive (15th) and defensive (10th) rating.
Like Milwaukee, Indiana boasts a ton of depth – they have nine regulars that play over 17 minutes per game. Malcolm Brogdon continues to be the Pacers’ engine, averaging 19.5/4.5/7.5. TJ Warren seems to have found his footing and Domantas Sabonis has been a beast, scoring 18.2 and grabbing 13.5 rebounds every night.
That said, the Pacers suffer a similar problem as the Bucks – they lack high-end talent. Their better part of the rotation is similar to Milwaukee’s non-Giannis top players; they’re useful, productive role players, but not guys you expect to beat teams with more star power.
This lends itself to Indiana being buyers over the next few months. They could add another on-ball threat to pair with Brogdon, thus making things easier for Sabonis and the assist-allergic Warren. TJ McConnell and the pair of Holiday brothers have performed admirably to this point, but no one in the conference is batting an eye at those three.
Of course, the Pacers already have a top-flight scorer and shot creator coming – Victor Oladipo. Oladipo has been out since January and is expected to return in the next few months.
Assuming he’s able to at all, it’ll take him time to get back to form. The likeliest scenario isn’t that the Pacers buy prior to the deadline, but that they continue rolling out their massive lineup and stay the course until their star returns.
Detroit Pistons (10-14) – Buyers
The Pistons are right where they want to be.
Well, maybe not. But after years of mediocre teams and 8th-seed finishes, seeing Detroit a handful of games under .500 and in the 9th spot in the Eastern Conference feels like home.
Detroit is 10th in offensive rating and 16th in defensive rating. Those numbers usually mean postseason appearances, especially in the weaker conference. A five-game losing streak in mid-November slowed their progress, but the 6-4 mark since Nov. 22 in about what you’d expect them to be.
But Blake Griffin has not looked like Blake Griffin. Maybe it’s injury-related, maybe it’s age-related. But a player of his caliber – especially coming off his sneaky-great 2018-19 – should regain form.
Andre Drummond is still doing Andre Drummond things. And as we detailed in October, Derrick Rose looks better than he has in years – he’s averaging 16.1 and 5.8 in just under 24 minutes per game.
The Pistons are buyers because the track record shows they don’t embrace the tank — Exhibit A: the Blake Griffin trade — and their age. Some middling teams prefer to bottom-out and rebuild. Detroit has proven their propensity to just hang around, winning 38-42 games each year before getting trounced in the postseason. That’s admirable; it’s hard to win games in the NBA. Trying to do so, even with moderate success, isn’t a bad thing.
Detroit’s top scorers are Griffin (30), Rose (31), Drummond (26), Luke Kennard (23), Markieff Morris (30) and Langston Galloway (24). Kennard has been pretty good, but Galloway isn’t inspiring fear in anybody. Drummond, still relatively young, cannot be a A or B option as a scorer. Detroit went after the now 30-year-old Griffin a few years ago and Rose this past summer. Those are win-now, stay-relevant moves and there isn’t a lot of flexibility there.
Accordingly, it wouldn’t surprise to see Detroit try and get a few players leading up to February. The only player they might try to unload is the currently-injured Reggie Jackson – although it’s hard to imagine who would want him.
Chicago Bulls (9-17) – Sellers
It’s been repeated for months now: The Bulls, 9-17 and 11th in the Eastern Conference, are a disappointment. They talked up the playoffs preseason only to fall victim to the same prey as they did last year. The injuries have been less (although Otto Porter Jr. has been out since Nov. 8 and Lauri Markkanen has dealt with an oblique injury), but it hasn’t translated to wins.
Chicago’s defense has improved – they’re up to 12th in defensive rating – but their offense continues to be bottom-barrel, currently 26th in the NBA. The two though-to-be stars in Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkanen have struggled; LaVine has been up (49 points and 13 threes in Charlotte on Nov. 23) and down (5 points on 2-for-11 against Detroit on Nov. 20) offensively and rough on defense. Elsewhere, Markkanen has been outright disappointing by managing just 14.5 points per on 39.3 from the field and 32.7 from three-point range.
There have been reported internal riffs, plus tons of questions about head coach Jim Boylen, his fit for the job and whether the players respond to him.
Even if it gets better for the Bulls, it’s unlikely it does so in a way meaningful enough to meet preseason expectations. Chicago should be looking to sell, whether it’s Kris Dunn or players higher on the totem pole. The front office may not want to hear it, but there’d be a market for both LaVine and Markkanen.
Whether they explore that market or not remains to be seen.
Cleveland Cavaliers (5-19) – Sellers
The Cavaliers aren’t good, but we all expected that. They’re 29th in offense and 28th in defense, and they’ve won just one of their last 15 games – including their current eight-game losing streak.
Collin Sexton looks similar to his rookie year, except now his three-point shooting is down. Cedi Osman and Jordan Clarkson are both shooting 41 percent. Darius Garland is shooting 37.9 from the field, and leads the team with a putrid 2.8 assists per game.
— Bootum (@DaRealBootum) December 12, 2019
That clip also shows us the reason the Cavaliers are maybe the biggest sellers of the trade period: Kevin Love.
Love’s numbers are down across the board. He’s averaging 15.7 and 10.5 rebounds per game on 43.8 percent from the field and 35.4 from three. Much of that can be explained by playing on a wholly uncompetitive team – other franchises want Love, a proven championship commodity who rebounds and stretches the floor.
Jason Lloyd of The Athletic reported today that Cleveland was seeking a first-round pick in exchange for Love. Lloyd also mentioned the problem with Love: He’s more expensive than Oklahoma City’s Danilo Galinari, but the latter is on an expiring deal.
Still, Love is a valuable player, and somebody that contenders will jump at once the deadline nears and executives are pressed to make a move. Portland has long been tied to the forward, but their standing in the Western Conference will factor into their willingness to take him on.
Regardless, it would be shocking (and almost implausible) to see Kevin Love in Cleveland past Feb. 6.
December is a big month for basketball – the Christmas day games are the most-watched regular season event on the NBA’s calendar. But something even more important than those matchups is only three days away, when much of the league becomes trade eligible.
Dec. 15 starts the race to Feb. 6. By then, we’ll know exactly who teams are as we look ahead to another NBA postseason.
NBA Daily: Are The Sixers Building Around The Wrong Franchise Player?
Joel Embiid is the Philadelphia 76ers’ “crown jewel.” But as he and Ben Simmons struggle to coalesce in year three of their partnership, it bears wondering if Philadelphia is building around the wrong franchise player.
The latter half of the Philadelphia 76ers’ longest winning streak during the Joel Embiid era came while he watched from the bench.
It began in mid-March 2018 with a win at Madison Square Garden, and ended nearly a month later with a home beatdown of the Milwaukee Bucks that sent the Sixers streaking into the playoffs having won 16 straight games. Embiid fractured his face two weeks into that binge, making it easy to believe his team would tumble to the bottom of the postseason standings.
Philadelphia was tied in the win the column with the eighth-place Miami Heat at the time of Embiid’s injury. Nothing it had previously done suggested the team could keep from falling to the last playoff seed in the East without him. The Sixers were 16.1 points per 100 possessions better with him on the floor in 2017-18, a team-high and one of the league’s biggest individual marks.
A soft schedule over the season’s last two weeks definitely helped Philadelphia thrive in spite of Embiid’s absence, and that’s how the streak was portrayed in the media by the time the playoffs started. It lasted one more game before the Miami HEAT beat the Sixers in Game 2 of the first round, after which Embiid returned.
But the breakneck, wide-open style of play his absence prompted from Philadelphia was impossible to forget last week, when Ben Simmons was unleashed again. The Sixers, coming off a dispiriting loss to the Washington Wizards, dropped 141 points on the Cleveland Cavaliers as Embiid nursed a sore hip.
Simmons was dominant in a way he hadn’t been all season, dropping a career-high 34 points and 7 assists on 12-of-14 shooting in just 26 minutes of play. He drained his second three-pointer, again from the corner, leading Brett Brown to later tell reporters that he wants Simmons launching at least one triple per game. Why?
“His world will open up,” Brown said after the game, “And, in many ways, so will ours.”
It’s become increasingly impossible of late to separate Simmons the player from Simmons the shooter. Philadelphia traded space and playmaking this summer to double down on size and defense, making the need for Simmons to develop any workable shooting range more dire than ever. Going on four years after he was drafted and three seasons into his career, it’s not like an expectation of him doing just that was asking too much.
But it just hasn’t happened nearly two months into the season, calling the Sixers’ viability as top-tier championship contenders into question. Simmons is 2-of-4 from three-point range and 4-of-9 on two-point jumpers outside the paint. Philadelphia relies on Embiid post-ups and pick-and-rolls for Josh Richardson and Tobias Harris in crunch time, leaving Simmons playing bystander in the dunker spot or weak corner as his teammates try their damndest to navigate a cramped floor with games on the line.
The Sixers rank barely above average in overall offensive rating, and worse in the clutch. Embiid and Philadelphia architect Elton Brand have received a fair share of criticism for their team’s relative struggles — especially offensively — in the season’s early going, but it’s Simmons who’s drawn the most ire.
The numbers, though, suggest Embiid’s impact is the one waning most. His net offensive rating has been overwhelmingly positive each of the last two seasons, but that hasn’t been the case in 2019-20. The Sixers are scoring at a bottom-five rate with Embiid on the floor, and a top-10 mark when he’s on the bench. Both his on and off-court offensive ratings are easy worsts among starters.
But the critical narrative surrounding Philadelphia’s offensive labors has largely ignored Embiid for Simmons regardless, and it’s not the media’s fault. Brown has made abundantly clear over the years that Embiid is his team’s franchise player, frequently calling him “our crown jewel” while citing his Hall-of-Fame ability on both sides of the ball.
Embiid isn’t tasked with tailoring his game toward Simmons’ nearly as much as the other way around, and understandably so. The former’s sheer size inherently limits both the flexibility and scalability of his offensive influence.
If Embiid isn’t the Sixers’ go-to guy, demanding post-ups and drawing double teams, just how would he function in the team construct? He’s way too talented to serve as a glorified floor-spacer, and his stroke hasn’t developed to the point he’d be well-suited for that role anyway. A similar line of thinking applies to making Embiid a rim-runner and vertical floor-spacer. He’s just too good, and not quite versatile enough, to prosper in a more confined offensive role.
The opposite dynamic applies to Simmons, at least for now. His most enticing attribute dating back to high school has been his adaptability. There are exceedingly few players standing 6-foot-10 capable of making the passes Simmons does, and fewer still who double as a disruptive defender of every position on the floor. He’s a Unicorn without the jumper, and his generational blend of size, athleticism and ball-handling genius portended inevitable skill development to come.
It hasn’t, for the most part, but focusing on that failure might be deflecting from an all-encompassing issue that continues to plague the Sixers. What if they’re building around the wrong franchise player?
The ongoing trajectory of the league lends credence to that notion. Simmons isn’t LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it’s not difficult to imagine an offensive attack molded to his similar strengths reaching heights one conformed to Embiid’s never could.
Philadelphia’s historic romp over Cleveland offered a glimpse into that alternate reality, just like its effectiveness this season with Embiid on the bench. Lineups featuring Simmons without Embiid boast an offensive rating of 114.4, comfortably above its overall mark, subsist on far higher diets of transition and three-point shooting, per Cleaning the Glass. The Sixers shoot better at the rim and from deep in that scenario, too, further evidence of Simmons’ sweeping effect without being forced to walk the ball up and Embiid clogging the paint.
Philadelphia, unsurprisingly, isn’t as stout defensively with those units on the floor. Embiid has been a defensive panacea during the regular season throughout his career. Improved conditioning is the only thing keeping him from winning Defensive Player of the Year, and he might win the award this season anyway.
Still, the same foibles that have long mitigated Rudy Gobert’s defensive influence in the playoffs apply to Embiid. A system built around a preeminent rim-protector with limited perimeter mobility can’t take away everything, and superior postseason competition generally means those low-value shots are more likely to drop. A switch-heavy scheme with a big like Al Horford playing center full-time, though? That’s a defense built for the playoffs, and one that would maximize Simmons’ gifts on that end — both on and off the ball.
This isn’t some cry for Philadelphia to blow it up – whether Simmons or Embiid would be the one on the way out. The Sixers’ ceiling is tallest with both on the roster, and it’s much too early to write them off as title contenders, this season or going forward. Neither Simmons nor Embiid are finished products; their pairing could still end up functioning at a championship level.
But if Philadelphia, quietly 6-1 in its last seven games, again starts underperforming, calls to trade Simmons will undoubtedly resurface.
And while that’s certainly a measure worth considering, it’s unfair to Simmons — and potentially destructive to the Sixers’ long-term title hopes — without at least broaching the same fate for Embiid.
Buy Or Sell: Southwest Division
Jordan Hicks continues the Buy or Sell series with a look at the Southwest Division.
It’s absolutely crazy to think about how deep basketball already is into the regular season. Over 25 percent of the games have already been played, and certain teams are starting to separate themselves from the pack. In an NBA campaign that was supposed to be riddled with parity, there’s definitely a select few teams that are starting to leave the rest behind.
What’s more, on Dec. 15th roughly 90 percent of the NBA becomes tradeable. Yes, it’s that time of the year in which trade talks will start to pick up. Something needs to spice up mundane December and January games, and nothing does a better job quite like rumors.
The Southwest Division has been chock-full of surprises. For one, the Dallas Mavericks seem to be a legitimately solid franchise. The San Antonio Spurs, on the other hand, seem to be struggling for the first time in what seems like 175 years. The Houston Rockets continue to stay playoff eligible despite Russell Westbrook’s shooting woes. The New Orleans Pelicans are just begging for Zion Williamson to return from injury and lead them out of the darkness. And the Memphis Grizzlies – well let’s just say they’re doing about as well as anyone expected.
In continuing with Basketball Insiders’ Buy Or Sell series, let’s take a look at each franchise and discuss whether they are in the position to seek talent, or exchange talent for future assets.
Houston Rockets (15-8) — Buyers
Tilman Fertitta should hang a bright-red neon sign in Daryl Morey’s office with the phrase BUY-BUY-BUY lighting proceedings up. As is, the Rockets are not good enough to win a championship. They may be reputable — and their roster may contain two of the greatest offensive players we’ve ever seen — but this team is not the 2016-17 Houston team that was one Chris Paul hamstring away from an NBA Finals birth.
Russell Westbrook will be a Hall of Famer, but his inability to efficiently shoot the ball just kills this team. Everything he is bad at, Paul excelled in. And everything Russell is amazing at, Paul either had mastered or could at least perform at an above-average level. Currently, when Westbrook is on the court, the Rockets’ net rating is 1.9. When he’s off the court, their net rating is 12.8. That is a monumental swing and currently the largest gap out of any other player on the team.
It’s not hard to imagine Houston pushing their chips in even further come the wintertime — they’re far too committed not to.
Dallas Mavericks (16-7) — Buyers
Dallas has really overshot everyone’s expectations. Most people thought they’d have a decent season, but it’s safe to say very few had them penciled in as playoff hopefuls. The fact that they are more-or-less playoff locks a quarter into the season is mind-boggling. What makes them so good you ask? Some kid named Luka Doncic, maybe you’ve heard his name.
The Mavericks are way ahead of schedule development-wise, so they’d be fine to just stand pat this year, see where they end up and then make moves in the offseason. However, if Mark Cuban wanted to get crazy and try to do something this season, you’d have to consider Dallas as buyers.
They need at least one more scoring threat to make them dangerous to go deep in the playoffs. As is, only two players are averaging over 15 a game and only three average more than 10. To wit, Kristaps Porzingis isn’t shooting well and Tim Hardaway Jr. doesn’t necessarily strike fear into the opposition. Dallas has movable contracts but whether or not they are solid enough to give them a return they’d need is up in the air at this point.
San Antonio Spurs (9-14) — Sellers
The Spurs should be in full sell mode for the first time in a long time. The only problem is, they don’t seem to be operating that way. They guaranteed LaMarcus Aldridge’s contract for the 2020-21 season, which makes very little sense as he’ll be owed $24 million. Now with the extra year, it’s doubtful many buyers will be coming for him.
With Aldridge’s contract making him nearly unsellable, DeMar DeRozan should become San Antonio’s sole focus when it comes to transactions. The former All-Star has a player option worth $27 million next season, but the dude can still ball out. He’s leading the team in scoring shooting 50 percent from the field, averaging 4.8 assists and looking about as healthy as he has in a while.
Sure, it’s concerning he still hasn’t developed a three-ball, but there is no way there wouldn’t be at least five-or-so teams at the deadline willing to give up a first for DeRozan’s assistance — he’d provide instant offense.
New Orleans Pelicans (6-18) — Sellers
Just when it seemed like they started to figure winning out, they fell off a cliff. Back in November, they had won three straight and five of their last seven. Since then, they’ve dropped nine straight games. You could argue that five of those losses aren’t surprising, but that fact that they didn’t even muster a single win in that stretch is alarming.
Things will look up when Williamson comes back, there’s no doubting that, but New Orleans should seriously consider trading JJ Redick. There probably isn’t a postseason-bound team in the league that wouldn’t give up their first round pick next season for his services. He’s only owed $13 million next season and the veteran still very clearly has it. The Pelicans are not making the playoffs this season, so keeping Redick rostered makes little sense. If they can sell him before the break to a needy franchise, then they may just get more than only a single first-rounder.
Memphis Grizzlies (7-16) — Sellers
This writer is thinking it, you’re thinking it — heck the whole world is probably thinking it. Why haven’t the Memphis Grizzlies traded Andre Iguodala yet? Kevin O’Connor of The Ringer reported Tuesday that the Grizzlies are still set on trading Iguodala as opposed to a buyout. So what’s the hold-up?
The key is waiting for a team to become desperate. It will be surprising if Iguodala is still rostered with Memphis past mid-January, but, technically, crazier things have happened. The Grizzlies will be big-time sellers when it comes to Iguodala — and they may even look to move veteran Jae Crowder. But, like New Orleans, they are a young team looking to improve internally for the future.
This division has plenty of diversity. You have two playoff teams, two bottom feeders and one team that isn’t sure what their identity is anymore. Iguodala is almost a sure bet for being moved, but it also wouldn’t be surprising if there wasn’t another transaction in this entire division.
Still, as hopes begin to fade and dreams start to soar, the mid-season trade option remains a route for both buyers and sellers. Will Dallas or Houston fortify their squads? Should New Orleans look toward the horizon already? Needless to say, the Southwest Division has handed onlookers plenty of intriguing drama and storylines moving into the halfway point of the year.
Keep on the lookout for more divisions as we continue the Buy Or Sell series.